Archive for the ‘qualitative research’ Category

By Bob Relihan, Senior Vice President

It is clear that on-line Communities are a growing research method.  If we are to believe Leonard Murphy, they are the top emerging method in market research.  But, what are communities exactly.  It is not an idle question, as I was reminded this week when I was asked to explain them to a marketing manager who had never used them.  What is the relationship between an MROC and the common understanding of the word community?  How does an MROC differ from a community that extends over a long period of time?  How is a community created for a specific research objective unlike the community of loyalists created by a brand?

There are many ways to answer these questions, some theoretical and others highly pragmatic.  However, the Pew Research Center and the Social Media Research Foundation have just released an extremely interesting and relevant report:  Mapping Twitter Topic Networks: From Polarized Crowds to Community Clusters.  It can provide a sound footing for all discussions of communities by providing us with a typology.

To be sure, Twitter Networks may not be exactly like all social networks, but they do appear to be reasonably like many social organizations and groups.  Pew sees a typology of Twitter networks based on the number and size of the groups within the network, the level of interconnectivity among the groups within the network, and the level of isolates or those within the groups who are unconnected with others.  The result is six network types:

  • Polarized Crowds
  • Tight Crowds
  • Brand Clusters
  • Community Clusters
  • Broadcast Networks
  • Support Networks

The table below is a simplified graphical representation of these six networks.


One thing strikes me about the typology, particularly as a practitioner of MROCs and focus groups.  When I explain the benefits of on-line communities or focus groups, I almost always stress the synergy the can develop among the participants as they share experiences and ask each other questions.  The result should always be more insights than I would gather from each individual taken separately.  At least that is the ideal, the hope.

Yet, an on-line community or focus group often resembles a Brand Cluster, Twitter networks that form around “well-known products or services or popular subjects like celebrities.”  That’s because so much research is driven by the need to optimize our understanding of brands.  These networks have a large number of disconnected participants.  In other words, brands draw participants who tweet about the brand, but they do not converse with each other.   This is not the network we want in a focus group or on-line community.

Tight Crowds are what we want.  These are discussions among many participants who are very interconnected.  Members seek out and share information with each other.  These Twitter networks form around professional topics or hobbies, things about which the members care about and things which derive their meaning and value from the relationships among the members.  These communities exist to share by their very nature.

If we are to maximize the synergy within our on-line communities and focus groups, we need to ensure that they resemble Tight Crowds more than Brand Clusters.  We can do this by bringing the communities or groups together to focus on the categories and behaviors about which the members are passionate.  For example, we are much more likely to gather insight that will help us position a brand of flour by talking about the home and baking than we are talking about the brand itself, even if we use the most clever projective techniques.

To make our groups and on-line communities as successful as possible, we need to recognize the topics that stimulate the most productive synergies.

By Bob Relihan, Senior Vice President

Thanks to a generous wife, I am now wearing a Pebble on one wrist and a Fitbit Force on the other.  Even though she wasn’t generous enough to give me Google Glass, clearly it was a wearable holiday at our house.  I felt a bit behind these items by giving her a new iPad – how last year… or even, how two years ago.

178835104Wearable technology was everywhere at this year’s CES.  So, I suppose I am now on the cutting edge.  But, what are we to make of this explosion of wearable devices?  Is this a case of technology in search of problem?  Or, is technology aligning itself with some fundamental human need?  It may be too early to tell.  Wearables are in their infancy.  I have a different device on each wrist, but they cannot talk with each other.  And, they perform different functions.  I should have just one wearable that does it all.  But, what is that “all.”  Right now my Pebble simply mirrors my smartphone.  Yes, it is fun to control the phone’s music with a watch or get a text message by glancing down at my wrist.  Yet, it is “just” fun; it definitely is not crucial.  It is a good rule of thumb that a technology that simply replicates the content of an earlier technology has not yet found its voice.

While its many executions may be clunky now, wearable computing speaks to some elemental human desires.

  • Since the first computer, we have been subject to the power of “the other.”  The computer structures our language and our thinking.  It is not without reason that we spoke of being chained to our computers.  As computers became smaller and their languages and interfaces more flexible, we gained a measure of control. Wearable computing put that technology totally at our service, at least ideally.  Rather than bending our thoughts and perceptions to the structure imposed by a computer, wearable computing enhances and strengthens our view of the world.
  • Social networking does more than keep us in touch with our friends.  Social networking is so successful because it appeals to our ego.  It permits us to continually be in touch with our thoughts and actions and to be assured they fit harmoniously within those of our circle.  Wearable computing makes that immediate and seamless.  So many of these wearable devices let us track and monitor our actions; they provide us with feedback.  In effect, we objectify ourselves and then integrate that objectification through the wearable device.

Robocop may be satire, but there is a sense in which we all desire to have our perceptions and understanding of the world around us augmented and heightened.  We want to control our world with technology, not be controlled by technology outside us.

But what does this mean for research?  We may be moving away from a research model in which respondents’ give responses to surveys, in which the response is independent of the respondents.

  • If consumers want to track and monitor themselves and they have the technology in the near future to do that seamlessly, insight professionals should be able to tap into that stream of self-reflection.  But in this world, the consumer and the response are one; we will be less able to ask direct questions.  Rather, we will need to align what consumers are “tracking” about themselves with the questions we might want to ask.
  • And, that tracking will yield smaller and smaller pieces of data.  We are currently struggling to adapt our insight gathering to the limitations imposed by the size of a smartphone screen.  Imagine how we will have to modify our perspectives if the Pebble is how we connect with consumers.

We are looking at a world in which our connections to consumers are even more immediate than we could ever imagine.

By Bob Relihan, Senior Vice President

Leonard Murphy has just posted a preview of the latest GRIT Study.  In it he identifies the top emerging trends in Marketing Research.  The top five are:

1.   Online Communities

2.   Mobile Surveys

3.   Social Media Analytics

4.   Text Analytics

5.   Big Data Analytics

As Murphy notes, these methods have reached mainstream status with the substantial majorities of researchers either using them or actively considering their adoption.  The next tier of methods has a smaller majorities using or consider them:

6.  Webcam-Based Interviews

7.  Eye Tracking

8.  Mobile Qualitative

9.  Mobile Ethnography

10.  Micro-surveys

These two lists speak to many of the changes in the research environment. For instance, mobile is the environment where we will find consumers and where they will expect to communicate their attitudes and beliefs.  Approaches we have typically used in a face-to-face setting in the past are being adapted to the online and mobile spaces. Big data, of course, is impossible to ignore.

But, if we look at these methods from the vantage point of the nature of the data involved, it is clear to me that seven of the ten are “qualitative” methods. That is not to say, however, that these are focus groups in disguise. Yet, with the exception of mobile surveys, eye tracking, and micro-surveys, these methods demand the analysis of non-structured, free-form data which is the essence of qualitative research. To be sure, some of these methods are bringing a more rigorous analytic perspective to this data.  But, they will only be successful if they are implemented by those who are comfortable drawing insights from non-structured data.  And, that is the qualitative researcher.

Regional Differences Do Matter

December 12th, 2013

By Bob Relihan, Senior Vice President

“Make sure that we get a good regional representation.”  That has often been the charge from the marketing manager to the insights director.  There has been a belief that different cuisines, climates, and experiences would have an impact on attitudes and tastes that could affect how consumers react to new products.   So, we would be certain to conduct focus groups in markets in three different regions or that quotas were set to assure the sample represented the East, South, Midwest, and West equally.  This was simply good research practice.

Then there was the evening I sat in a focus group room in Atlanta and discovered, as I went around the table that every one of the participants was originally from New Jersey.  I had just conducted focus groups in New Jersey the night before.  Why had I made that flight?

Perspectives change.  To be sure, a brand’s sales figures can vary from market to market, but I cannot remember the last time I concluded the differences in brand perceptions from one market to another were ground in fundamental differences in the behavior or attitudes of consumers in those markets.  “Place” as defined by traditional markets seems less relevant now.  Virtual communities define differences now, or intra-regional differences such as those between an urban core and the suburbs.  We are much more interested in ethnic or generational differences when we strive to be representative.

And, from an operational perspective, with more and more qualitative research being conducted virtually, it has become possible to assure that an online community has participants from all over the country.  There is no need for travel to those four different markets to be “representative.”

But, a recent article by Richard Florida in The Atlantic Cities points to a large-scale study by a team social psychologists,  “Divided We Stand: Three Psychological Regions of the United States and Their Political, Economic, Social and Health Correlates.”  The team analyzed data from a number of surveys that stretched over a twelve year period, representing 1.5 million people from the 48 continental United States.  They mapped and clustered the occurrence of five personality traits — openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism.

This is Florida’s summary of their conclusions.

The study identifies three main regional types:  friendly and conventional, relaxed and creative, and temperamental and uninhibited. The maps below, from the study, show how these line up across America’s states.

photo1The shaded areas on the maps above, from the study, show where the three profiles predominate.

  • The Friendly and Conventional Region is the blue area that runs from Michigan through the Midwest and much of the Sunbelt and traditional South. This region is defined by low levels of openness (the trait most closely associated with innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship), low levels of narcissism (the counterpoint to which is a high level of emotional stability) and moderate to high levels of extroversion, agreeableness and conscientiousness. This composite of traits shapes a regional personality that is sociable, considerate, dutiful, and traditional.

As the authors note, “the psychological profile and all the social indicators betray a region that is marked by conservative social values.” This ethos maps onto a region whose residents are primarily white and politically conservative, less likely to move, and more likely to remain close to family and friends. They also have relatively lower levels of education, wealth, innovation, and social tolerance. This region has high levels of social capital and engagement in religious and traditional civic organizations. As the authors conclude, “taken together, the characteristics of this psychological region suggest a place where traditional values, family, and the status quo are important.”

  • The Relaxed and Creative Region is the green area along the West Coast and Rocky Mountains through Idaho, Arizona, and New Mexico. There is also a weaker concentration, identified by the much lighter green shading in parts of the Sunbelt (especially North Carolina) and some of New England (including Massachusetts). This regional profile is high in openness and oriented toward creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship. It is also low in extroversion (less-outgoing, more introverted) and agreeableness and especially low in neuroticism (in other words, it has higher levels of emotional stability).

Demographically, the population includes relatively high levels of college grads, more affluent people and higher levels of ethnic diversity. “Social capital is comparatively low here, but tolerance for cultural diversity and alternative lifestyles is high,” the article notes. Befitting its historical origins as the destination for pioneers, it is an “area where significant numbers of people are choosing to settle, as indicated by the positive association with residential mobility…. It is also a place where residents are politically liberal, as well as psychologically and physically healthy.”

  • The Temperamental and Uninhibited Region is the deep orange area that covers the Northeast, New England and Middle Atlantic states. There are also lighter concentrations in the contiguous areas of Ohio and Indiana, as well as Texas. This region’s psychological profile is defined by very high levels neuroticism (hence the temperamental moniker), moderately high levels of openness, low levels of extroversion (or high levels of introversion) and very low levels of agreeableness and conscientiousness. This constellation of personality traits depict a type of person that is “reserved, aloof, impulsive, irritable, and inquisitive,” while also being “passionate, competitive, and liberal.” This region is highly educated and affluent, with high levels of ethnic and cultural diversity and a liberal political orientation.

If nothing else, this analysis serves to confirm certain stereotypes we all hold of those from different parts of the country.  But, the authors of the study make other connections, seeing their data as providing a psychological underpinning to the politically conservative character of the South and Midwest and the entrepreneurial and creative character of the West.  In their view, both of these conclusions have policy implications.

But, from the perspective marketing research, particularly that conducted in support of new product and communications development, this research gives support to a renewed concern for very specific geographic balance.  One cannot doubt that individuals with the three character traits described above are very likely to have different reactions to new products and communications.  Thus, assuring that the three regions are properly represented in any piece of research seems prudent.  Perhaps, the basic three-market focus group project should feature three markets that appear to be ground zero for the three clusters — New York, Omaha, and Phoenix?

By Bob Relihan, Senior Vice President

176810621There is much debate over the superiority of on-line versus face-to-face qualitative research. On-line qualitative is not just the latest thing. Discussion boards and communities enable the researcher to engage the consumer in so many ways — pictures, journals, video, collages — with all this material available to the participants and the research team in one place. And, consumers can be anywhere — their home, in a store — doing anything, when they describe their experiences and reactions. But, for many, there is nothing to compare with the ability to look a consumer directly in the eye and challenge her responses or have her amplify them in the moment. In a group, everyone can quickly build on responses and create new insights. Both approaches have clear strengths.

But, why choose between the two? We have found that explorations combining both methods are highly productive. The results, in fact, are more than the sum of the parts.

Imagine a brand team that needs to revitalize a product and wants to get back to basics with a thorough exploration of the category. This is the type of task for which qualitative research has been seen as ideal. One might conduct a number of focus groups or ethnographic interviews with the relevant consumers. There would a good deal of observation and projective exercises to explore usage, attitudes, the brand landscape, unmet needs, and the like. Or, you might host an on-line community with the same consumers and cover much of the same territory with similar exercises, optimized for the on-line environment.

But, here is what happens when you combine the two approaches.

First, you conduct that on-line community with relevant consumers. In the process, they may do any number of exercises:

  • Take a video of themselves shopping the category.
  • Take pictures of their pantry.
  • Create a video journal of the times they have used products in the category during a two-week period.
  • Create a collage that represents the values they associate with the category.
  • Sort all of the brands in the category into families and associate a celebrity with each family.

Second, we select the “best” participants from the on-line community — the most creative, the most verbal, the ones who related best to the other participants — and invite them to participate in a face-to-face focus group. Here, we can probe in an atmosphere of genuine give-and-take what the category, brands, and products mean to these consumers.

Aren’t we just repeating ourselves? No. This two-step approach offers a number of benefits.

  • You will notice that a number of the activities done in the on-line community — journals, collages, and the like— are typical “homework” assignments we give focus group participants before a session. The on-line community becomes a study hall. The structure of the community assures us that all participants have completed their activities. How many times have you had individuals appear for a focus group with a “collage” they have obviously slapped together five minutes before leaving the house. And, we are able to nudge participants if they don’t understand aspects of the activity or if they are going in a particularly interesting direction.
  • Being able to see these exercises before the group interview enables the researcher to formulate hypotheses to explore in the interview that are based on genuine insight drawn from the on-line community. Often times, the hypotheses that drive the typical focus group discussion are based on more general suppositions about a category or consumer behavior.
  •  It is possible to select from all of the exercises created in the on-line community just those examples that serve as the most effective stimulus in the focus group. You can select just two collages that perfectly exemplify conflicting visions of the category and present them to the group. How would they describe the differences? Do they even recognize them? You can present a video of one of the actual participants in the room as she shops the category in the grocery aisle. Was this everyone’s experience? You can draw everyone’s attention to specific details of the experience that are authentic.
  • Finally, the dynamic within the group is much more productive. We already “know” the participants; we have established rapport with them during our on-line exchanges. And, they have gotten to know the others in the group. It is a bit like “old home week” when everyone enters the room for the first time.

Combining on-line and face-to-face qualitative in one project maximizes the strengths of both approaches and more than doubles the insight.

By Bob Relihan

One of the biggest flashes of insight I had about the grocery was the realization that it could be just like the jewelry store.

I was walking through a grocery store with a woman as she shopped.  We weren’t even calling this a “shop-along” yet.  She put something in her cart.  I remember it being a jar of mustard.  I looked at her, and she knew what I was thinking.  “This is a little present for myself.  No one else in the house really likes it.”  She paused for a moment.  “I really like getting presents.  You can’t buy a new pair of earrings every day, after all.”

Note that she hadn’t purchased some rich chocolate or an indulgent pastry.  Mustard was special to her.  But, the experience even transcended the mustard itself.  Looking for presents made the entire trip to the grocery store much more enjoyable. Every week was a little Christmas.

99915505It was a revelation.  Up until then, I had spent a good deal of time exploring consumer needs and the power of products to fulfill those needs. To be sure, one of those needs might be the desire for a particular hedonistic experience.  But, the need was still “rational,” and I was looking at how the product’s attributes delivered that experience.  It was a closed system — consumer needs and product attributes, each set mapping on the other.  And, it was a system marketers seemed to accept, judging by the questions we agreed were important.

In other words, we assumed that the product or service delivered the benefits.  The woman in the grocery store taught me that was not the case.

  • When consumers describe the benefits of a product, they are not always describing the product.  They are just as likely to be reacting to some aspect of the environment that the product touches.  And, that experience may be idiosyncratic to that particular consumer.
  • The shopping experience can endow products with meaning independent of the products themselves.  In other words, there really is such a thing as “shopper insights.”
  • The woman would likely have described the mustard as “special” or “a treat.”  But, these were not really attributes of the mustard.  They were the product of her being the only one in the household who liked the mustard.  Meaning and value are the result of context; rarely are they intrinsic.

The ultimate lesson is that a product does not exist in a vacuum.  Its value and meaning to a consumer cannot be separated from the desire to have it or the act of shopping for it.

By Bob Relihan, Senior Vice President

We often encourage consumers to think “metaphorically.”  In a focus group or interview, metaphors can be powerful.  Those who use them open up.  They move in new and unexpected directions.  Ultimately, the metaphors put us in touch with the unconscious motivations and beliefs of the consumers who create them.

157601193But, the process doesn’t always work.  You ask consumers to discuss a particular product, and they say it is “like a golden retriever.”  We have all heard the “golden retriever.”  The brand makes them feel good, and a golden retriever makes them feel good.  This is stale, predictable.  We are tempted to say that we have just gotten into a rut of convention.  Ask people to name a dog, and most give the golden retriever.

From the perspective of interviewing technique, the problem is deeper and more basic.  We have confused metaphor with simile.  Not to be over pedantic, but let me define.  Both are figures of speech; both are analogies.  But, a simile uses like or as in the analogy.  In a metaphor, the comparison is implicit.

The difference between an implicit and an explicit analogy is key in dealing with a respondent. When individuals make a conscious, literal comparison, there is no room for serendipity.  You can see the wheels turning.

“Let’s see.  Brand A makes me feel good.  OK.  What else makes me feel good?  Golden retrievers make me feel good.  So, Brand A is like a golden retriever.”

She has added nothing, and you have learned nothing.  She might as well have told you directly that Brand A made her feel good.  When consumers switch to “simile mode” they make a simple literal translation.  There is no expansion; nothing is in touch with their motivations.

So, how can we encourage more genuine metaphorical thinking?

  • Use creative, projective exercises.  Have your consumers draw pictures or cartoons.  Create a category family.  Write a brand obituary.  Describe how a brand smells (even if the product has no smell).  Do anything that confuses the terms of the explicit analogy the consumer might want to create between her emotions and that brand or product in which you are interested.  You can do this by always shifting among senses.  If you are interested in the taste of a product, talk about its color.  If you want to understand the impact of a product’s color, discuss its aroma.
  • Focus on the metaphor’s vehicle.  Traditional rhetorical theory distinguishes between the “tenor” and the “vehicle” of a metaphor.  The tenor is the object or concept in which you are interested.  The vehicle is what is compared to it.  For example, in the opening of Dante’s Divine Comedy, a life in error is the tenor described by analogy to a dark forest, the vehicle. If you have the consumer focus solely on the vehicle–the golden retriever in our initial example of a simile–and discuss only the vehicle–what it means, how it looks, how it feels–you will break the conscious connection the consumers might want to make between the tenor and the vehicle.  In discussing just the vehicle, she will reveal her subconscious associations with the tenor.
  • Tell stories and discuss the images.  If you have consumers tell stories about a brand, you will also break down the obvious, explicit connections.  For example, I used to ask car owners about the most memorable event they remembered in their cars.  And, I would ask them to tell the stories of that event. One woman described driving to the hotel after her first daughter’s wedding.  A young man described bringing his new car to show his father.  In their descriptions of these events were images that ultimately reflected their sense of the significance of the makes of cars they drove.
  • Never frame your question like a simile.  This is the basic rule.  Never ask what a brand or product is “like.”

If you follow these principles, your metaphoric discussions with consumers will be much more expansive and productive.  I will save the value of allegory for a later post.

By Bob Relihan, Senior Vice President

Every so often, one runs into a marvelous confluence of avocation and vocation.  I love cars.  So, I was reading the blog at Car and Driver and discovered a long discussion of the stagnation of the Honda brand.  Cars AND marketing.  I couldn’t resist.  Toward the end of the piece, Dave Marble described an example of how Honda got in the position of creating underwhelming products.

Basic RGB“The [Honda planning] department concocts customer abstracts so interchangeable business drones can comprehend the intent of a new vehicle. In the case of the first-generation RDX, this abstract was “Jason,” a young, upwardly mobile, urban-residing male that needed a turbocharged engine, “Super Handling All-Wheel Drive,” and room to transport all his lifestyle accouterments. Yeah, okay. As it turned out, there weren’t many “Jasons” buying the RDX. Planning got that part wrong—really wrong.”

I was sympathetic.  It reminded me so much of the experience shared by many qualitative researchers of being asked to assemble a focus group composed of members of a specific customer segment (usually the product of a very sophisticated segmentation analysis) only to discover that the particular combination of demographics, psychographics, and behavior apparently does not exist in the real world.

But, I also know that user archetypes can be incredibly valuable.  I have helped develop some.  They focus the minds of marketers and new product developers.  You may not be able to have an actual customer with you 24/7, but you can have the user archetype of your product taped above your desk.

So, here are four guidelines for creating user archetypes that work.

  • Make sure that “real users” drive the process.  Accurate user archetypes are based on close observation of real users — their needs, their wants, their behavior.  This may seem self-evident, but I suspect that the “Jason” had his genesis not in the lives of real car buyers but out of the need or desire on the part of Honda to assure that the RDX was true to their vision of the Acura nameplate and that the RDX was clearly distinguished from the similar Honda CR-V.  To convince themselves that a member of their vehicle portfolio was distinct, they created a “vision” of its buyer that was also distinct, and self-fulfilling.  And, evidently, inaccurate.
  • Recognize the difference between real and aspirational users.  For marketers, their products have two kinds of users — the real flesh and blood user and the person the real user aspires to be by using the product.  Understanding both users is crucial to marketers, but confusing them can cause problems.  For example, the media behaviors of real and aspirational users can be different.  Building a media plan on the tastes of the aspirational user may not reach the real target.  Again, Honda may have erred in this direction.  Jason seems much more like someone to whom an RDX user might aspire.
  • Recognize the difference between a user personality and a brand personality. The marketers or new product developers often have two touchstones to guide their efforts — the brand personality and the user personality.  I have known brand managers with two different types of consumer-created collages in their offices.  One collected images of users and what the stood for; the other revealed images of the brand’s personality.  There can be overlap between the two, but there is rarely identity.  A car, such as a compact SUV like the RDX, might well have the personality of a magician which enables the user to have the personality of a superhero.
  • Be “real” yourself.  Do not overly idealize your user.  He may have flaws, but these flaws may be essential to how he or she relates to your product.

Ultimately, take your user archetype out for a test drive.  Once you have created the archetype, see if you can actually find real representatives.  Talk to them; listen to them.  Does the archetype resonate with them?  Remember, the archetype is a construct to guide your actions, so they are unlikely to play it back literally and verbatim.  But, if the archetype is well constructed, it should reflect their needs, desires, hopes, and fears.

By Bob Relihan, Senior Vice President

Focus GroupThe title is meant to be a bit clever.  I am not talking about actual focus groups; I am referring to the term.  I have always suspected that focus group was used to refer to any casual, open-ended, small sample, non-projectable research method.  And, I always thought that those who used the term this way were misinformed.  Well, I have to throw in the towel.  I have no better authority than the Pew Research Center.

Its recent project exploring teens, their use of social media, and their attitudes to on-line privacy has generated a good deal of buzz in the press.  It merits an extended discussion in the future.  But, what caught my eye was the research method.  There was a phone survey, twenty-four focus groups conducted in four markets, and “two online focus groups…conducted as an asynchronous threaded discussion over three days using an online platform, and the participants were asked to log in twice per day.”

This is what we at C+R Research call a short-term online community.  To be sure, we conduct focus groups.  We may even conduct focus groups online.  But, we are careful to distinguish between the two methods — focus groups and communities.  We believe each has its strengths that make each appropriate to particular situations and sets of issues.

  • Focus Groups are great when consumers need to be pressed on their reactions by the give-and-take of face-to-face interaction.  This is true when it is important to assess how emotionally committed they are in their reactions to something such as a new product concept.
  • Online communities make it easier for consumers to describe their behavior and feelings at length, often in a nurturing, unthreatening environment.  So, when it is important to explore the behavior of consumers and their emotional involvement in that behavior, online communities are just the ticket. When I want to know the needs that drive category usage and explore the gaps, an online community is a good place to start.

That is why experience is so important.  When the marketing manager says, “We need to do focus groups,” he/she probably means we need to collect information in a way that isn’t a survey.  It is the experienced qualitative researcher, familiar with a range of methods and categories, who can determine whether those “focus groups” should be online communities, individual interviews, ethnographies, in-store observations, or, yes, focus groups.

By Bob Relihan, Senior Vice President

There is a good deal of received wisdom about the grocery store design and how it can both engage the consumer and structure her progress through the store.  The strategy of placing the more engaging areas, such as the deli and meat, around the perimeter of the store and the packaged items in the center of the store is well known.  End-caps capture attention as well as the shelves at eye level.

All of these strategies create the impression that the store is well-organized and the trip through it regular and structured.  I must say that my experience shadowing and interviewing consumers through the store seems to confirm this.  A series of shopping trips through the same store often seems similar as the shoppers follow close to the same route through the store, examining many of the same items.

200379704-001But, my most recent trip to the grocery store has caused me to re-think this order.  I walked through the first set of doors and grabbed my cart.  I went through the second set of doors and turned right into the produce department.  How typical.  But, as often happens in the grocery, I bumped another shopper.  I looked at her and then glanced around at the others in the produce department.  There were about five of us.  Now, fast forward.  I am in the checkout line.  As I am placing things on the conveyor, I drop a can on the floor.  Again, the break in the typical action causes me to look around.  There are two people behind me and two more in the aisle next to me.  None of them were among the group with whom I began my journey through the store forty minutes earlier.  We all might have made it to the deli together, but with each twist and turn we went our separate ways.

Progress through the grocery store is not as regular as we might think, or hope.  Each shopper is a bit like a molecule bouncing about in space.  As time passes, it becomes increasingly impossible to know where each molecule is, where it came from and where it is going.  Getting the attention of a substantial number of shoppers in the store, therefore, is a difficult task.  For each one of them the context is constantly changing, and context structures the meaning of any communication.

So, what should one do to get a consistent message to the most shoppers in the grocery store?

  • Get shoppers before they are in the store.  This, of course, is the classic strategy of the weekly flyer.  But, now it is necessary to get some shoppers on the their mobile devices too.
  • Get them at the entrance.  If shoppers are going to scatter in unpredictable ways throughout the store, displays near the door will have impact on the greatest number of shoppers.
  • Be as disruptive as possible.  Encamps have some impact, but a pallet of a product in the middle of the aisle has to be noticed.
  • Have messages in as many places as possible.  The package on the shelf may have the best expression of you message, but it is in only one place in the store.  Products in multiple places will have more impact.  Advertising in the store also extends the react of the product’s message.
  • Provide a more interactive store experience.  The store is not the constant.  It is the shopper who is the constant.  If the shopper can be reached in the store wherever she is through a combination of WiFi and Interior GPS, the experience can be controlled for all shoppers.  It won’t matter if they are standing in front of a particular display, the product’s message can reach her in any related part of the store.  Or, as she passes your product, she can be alerted it’s there–more disruptive behavior.

The analogue experience of walking through a grocery store is unpredictable and difficult to control.  Technology, however, can make the shopper the focus of the shopping experience, assuring that each shopper receives the same message or a message tailored to her particular wants and needs.